Roses Puncture the Case for Plant Patents

[imgbelt img=patentNamingKovsie300.jpg]Advocates of plant patenting have argued that ownership
will spur botanical innovation. A new study of rose breeding in the
U.S. suggests the opposite may be true.


[imgcontainer left] [img:patentNamingKovsie300.jpg] [source]University of the Free State

Professor Frederick Fourie, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, South Africa, names a new rose — ‘Kovsie’ — developed by the horticulture department.

The fervent experimentalism of rose breeders has put a thorn in the case for plant patenting.

Since 1930, it’s been legal in the U.S. to patent new plants propagated asexually (those not grown from seed but, for example, sprouted from cuttings; in 1970, legal protection was extended to some seed producers, too).

Patenting plant life has been a controversial issue all along, from debates in the 19th century to today’s struggles against seed monopolies. Among many arguments, patent opponents have contended that plants, unlike threshing machines or morning-after pills, aren’t fundamentally the result of human effort. The diligence and genius of breeders notwithstanding, plants are “products of nature and hence… not inventions or, as the Germans put it, Nicht-Erfindungen.”

But proponents of plant patenting, from Thomas Edison to Monsanto, have argued that only legal ownership and the profits that accrue to patent-holders can guarantee horticultural innovation. Plant breeding is a long-term and expensive enterprise, they contend, but botanical novelties, once achieved, are easy to replicate. It’s only fair, patent supporters say, for those who undertake the work of plant development to reap a benefit for their arduous effort.

Without the financial rewards of patent-holding, advocates say, horticultural experts will have no incentive to develop better plant varieties.

A new study produced for the National Bureau of Economic Research presents strong evidence, however, that plant patenting has not increased botanical innovation or discovery.

Scholar-economists Petra Moser (Stanford) and Paul W. Rhode (University of Michigan) assessed the patents-increase-innovation argument by studying the hundreds of new roses registered since passage of the 1930 Plant Patent Act. They found that despite the purported incentives to American rosarians through patents, “European breeders continued to create most new roses, and there was no increase in the number of new varieties per year after 1931.”

Clearly, something other than proprietorship motivates rose breeders — and perhaps other botanists and inventors, too.

Rose Web

Ralph Moore, the world’s specialist in miniature roses, patented 80 some varieties and at age 101 gave them all to Texas A&M University.

Yet new registrations with the American Rose Society, which confer little more than that privilege of naming, suggest that such an opportunity — and the thrall of botanical experimentation itself – have spurred horticultural innovation more successfully than patents.

Rosarian and centenarian Ralph Moore bred more than 500 new roses and patented many of them. At age 101 he retired, donating all his plants and breeding stock, 80 rose patents, and a cash donation to Texas A&M University’s horticultural sciences department.

“None of us own anything,” Moore said. “We’re only trusted with it.”